The Terminator

A man, a woman, and a cyborg walk into a dance club called Tech Noir. Nope, we're not setting up a joke here. We're setting the scene for an incident that tells us a lot about what the Terminator might symbolize.

A Heart of Silicon

At its most basic level, the Terminator represents all that his human opponent, Sarah Connor, is not. Given this, we'll first need to figure out what Sarah represents to crack this mechanical nutshell.

For our money, Sarah represents humanity and life. Her humanity is shown in her day-to-day doings as a university student: horrible job, cancelled dates, hangouts with friends, and so on. It's a very human experience, and we can all relate to it in some respect. She also has free will, choosing her values and choosing how she'll act based on those values.

As a woman, she also represents life in a more literal way: she can have children, something she is well on her way to doing by the film's conclusion. By extension, Reese notes that Sarah's child will bring humanity back "from the brink" of extinction. This makes Sarah's ability to give birth a literal and figurative lifeline for humanity.

The Terminator, on the other hand, symbolizes death and all that is inhuman. It cannot create life; it can only take it. We see this is in every aspect of the character. For example, it kills three street punks about a minute after arriving in 1984. It then keeps the body count climbing until its own destruction. Underneath its human disguise, it houses a mechanical skull, a literal face of death.

The Terminator's existence is entirely inhuman. It does not live or die, work or socialize, love or feel heartbreak. Stamped and programmed on a factory assembly line, it was created for one purpose, and one purpose only: to kill Sarah Connor. As Reese so vividly puts it, "You still don't get it, do you? He'll find her. That's what he does. That's all he does."

As such, the Terminator can't experience life, reflect on those experiences, and choose for itself. It lacks the capacity to think or feel anything. In contrast to Sarah, the Terminator lacks the free will to choose how or why it will act. It simply does what it was made to do.

Only Skin Deep

That the Terminator represents death and inhumanity is a basic way to look at it. But this mechanized monster is also enigmatic, and many different viewers have dug deeper than the basic concept in order to extend the Terminator's symbolism further.

One such reader is J. P. Telotte. Telotte's interpretation of the Terminator emphasizes how easy it is for the machine to pass as a person despite being so very, obviously, totally, completely not one. In his words, "The clothes, his spiked hair, and a perfectly shaped body let him almost 'stylishly' fit into the cultural landscape of the 1980s. […] Programmed with a limited set of verbal responses that suggests how superficially much of our interaction has become, he easily negotiates his way in our world" (source).

Telotte points out how easily the Terminator blends into the Tech Noir nightclub, but another good example occurs when the police officer at the station's front desk barely looks up at the obviously intimidating guy requesting to see Sarah Connor—the woman, let's remind ourselves, who is at the station because she is involved in a multiple homicide case. The officer gives the Terminator the same consideration he would a deli patron: "Eh, take a number, guy."

In fact, the Terminator passes better for a human than Reese does. Silberman considers Reese to be less than human, "a loon." While we're sure the hobo pants haven't helped his case, the truth is that Reese is very human and has the best interests of humanity at heart. Also, as Telotte points out, Sarah appears to be a frivolous, incompetent young woman when we first meet her, but this judgment proves rash as we see her character develops.

To conclude, let's give Telotte the final word: "The Terminator, then, warns about a kind of technologically inspired way we have of judging the world and those in it on the basis of appearances, while it also cautions us about the basis of those appearances" (source).

In other words, the Terminator represents the old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover." You never know when you'll find a killer cyborg between the dust covers.

But Wait

There's more. Arthur Asa Berger is another viewer who came up with a different symbolic reading of the Terminator. In fact, Berger's essay is more a cataloguing of various readings on the symbolic nature of the Terminator. These representations include:

  • Technophobia, anxiety, and fear of machines
  • Infections and diseases that invade the human body before destroying it
  • Death and asexuality
  • A superego that "has become distorted and destructive and is out of control" (source)

In addition to the examples above, Berger also notes the possibility of interpreting the film as a work that represents several types of "paranoia and anxiety" felt by many people in modern "American culture and society" (source). Basically, the Terminator represents what is scary about our modern technological culture.

When looking at the character in this light, the Terminator feels less like a concrete symbol and more like an inkblot test. You, the viewer, can see what you want in its human-shaped clockwork, creating your very own, personalized version of the film. It's an inkblot that, for a change, doesn't just look like an abstract butterfly.

So, what do you see in the Terminator?

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